Sometimes I hate calling it right. Granted, I have been sometimes wrong with my prognostication in the past. Last I looked President Kerry was not in the White House. Nevertheless, I hit the bullseye on Iraq. I called it right even before the war started. Winning a prediction would normally make me want to gloat. Yet as I watch Iraq descend into the civil war that I predicted, I just feel sick over the whole thing. Moreover, I feel almost nauseous knowing that my country recklessly lit the fuse.
Arguably, there has been a minor civil war going on in Iraq since around 2004. At first American forces were the principle targets of the insurgency. We are still hit regularly by insurgent forces. Seven Americans died from IEDs just the other day. Of course, American forces are now harder to target. We have adapted to losses by keeping many of our forces in their bases instead of patrolling or fighting. It makes for lower casualty counts for our increasingly antiwar public, but it probably does not improve Iraq’s security.
No one knows for sure who is causing the violence. That alone is telling. If forces were really in control, there would be no anarchy. Yet here we are nearly three years after our invasion and we are still operating with our blinders on. It appears that our intelligence today is not much better than the virtually nonexistent intelligence used to start this war.
The best guess is that the current anarchy in Iraq is mostly caused by a myriad of sectarian forces, each hoping to expand their own power by cutting down opposing sects’. Of course, when hardly anyone is minding the store, it becomes easier for the entirely wrong elements to become unleashed. One hundred forty thousand American troops were clearly not enough boots on the ground to prevent anarchy. Therefore, al Qaeda and affiliated elements easily crossed borders and set up shop, possibly aided by Iran and Syria. It would be a good bet to assume they are responsible for this most egregious act: the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. However, it could also have done by a small sect of Sunni insurgents.
If we were to do a risk assessment of what would trigger an Iraqi civil war, you would think blowing up some of the holiest Shia and Sunni shrines in the country would do it. Forces sufficient to repel attacks should have been securing these sites. But since war is hell, it must lead to a lot of muddled thinking. It must be hard to think tactically when you are not even sure you can get down the street safely. While not quite to the Shia what St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican is to the Roman Catholics, the Askariya shrine is nearly as important. Think how outraged Catholics would feel if the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s precious frescos were turned into rubble by terrorists.
Not surprisingly, the attack had the desired effect. The Shia, who have always been in the majority, found that with an incident this egregious they could no longer sit on their hands. Numerous Sunni mosques were quickly damaged or destroyed, although with all the anarchy it is hard to quantify the size of the destruction. That in turn led to the destruction of some Shia mosques. Hundreds of people have been killed. Iraqis will be fortunate if only thousands more are killed as a direct result of this incident.
As for the nascent Iraqi constitutional government, it is likely gone with the wind. A major Sunni sect will no longer participate unless some extremely onerous demands are accepted. Perhaps they will think more clearly with time. Rather than expecting unity, expect Iraqis to become passionately sectarian. This one nation ideal is just no longer a good fit. When push comes to shove, you have to make unpleasant choices. In Iraq that means that clan loyalty trumps over national loyalty. Rather than seeing the united and pluralist Iraq of America’s dreams, Iraq will devolve into heightened civil war and ruthless sectarianism. The result will mean what is has arguably already occurred: the end of Iraq as a country. Instead, there will be Eastern Iraq. Since it is predominantly Shia, it will likely end up as part of Iran. The Kurds will have their own country, if Turkey will allow it. The Sunnis will form either their own impoverished nation or affiliate with Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Iraq as we have known it since the British assembled it after World War I is effectively history. We are too blinded by our predispositions to see this yet. What should concern us more is whether the civil war in Iraq will spill outside its borders, inflaming the whole Middle East.
This civil war is unlikely to look like most civil wars. I will grant that insurgents have been attacking the Iraqi army and police at levels that suggest a civil war started years ago. Yet there does not appear to be a united insurgency. Therefore, “civil war” may not be the right label. Then what exactly do you call it when a nation descends into anarchy and chaos and sects fight other sects in the street? To call it an insurgency is absurd. We may need a refined definition of civil war for our modern age.
I believe that what we witnessed in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s is what we will see in Iraq for at least the next decade. Perhaps as in Lebanon, the factions at some point will have released their entire animus. Perhaps even the insurgents will get so sick of fighting that they will either demand peace or go home. Perhaps. However, this day is a long way off.
I believe that this civil war was destined to happen. Saddam Hussein the chess player set up the violence we are witnessing by inflaming sectarian tensions during his dictatorship. Sunni and Shia have lived peacefully together for many years. Their relationship was not always in perfect harmony. However, prior to Saddam Hussein each side rarely saw reasons to get violent with the other. Much of what we are now witnessing is a sad denouement of Saddam’s dubious legacy. One thing is clear: by invading, we added gasoline to this smoldering fire. It is unlikely that history will look kindly at our noble intentions.